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Incidents during the Hajj

What history is saying: Saudi Arabia's incapabilities to manage Hajj affairs

There have been many serious incidents during the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, that have caused the loss of thousands of lives.

  • Date: 2015/12/02
  • Time: 13:49
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What history is saying: Saudi Arabia's incapabilities to manage Hajj affairs

VON Press: Every follower of Islam is required to visit Mecca during the Hajj at least once in his or her lifetime, if able to do so; the pilgrimage is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. During the month of the Hajj, Mecca must cope with as many as three million pilgrims.

Plane travel makes Mecca and the Hajj more accessible to pilgrims from all over the world. As a consequence, the Hajj has become increasingly crowded. City officials are required to control large crowds and provide food, shelter, sanitation, and emergency services for millions. It has not always been possible to prevent incidents. The stoning of the devil ritual is the most dangerous part of the pilgrimage because of the huge crowds, particularly as they cross the massive multilayer Jamarat Bridge that affords access to the pillars.

Stampedes and failures of crowd control

Sometimes the surging crowds, trekking from one station of the pilgrimage to the next, cause a stampede. Panic spreads, pilgrims jostle to avoid being trampled, and hundreds of deaths can occur as a result. The stoning of the devil (ramī aj-jamarāt) ceremony is particularly crowded and dangerous. Pilgrims fling pebbles at three walls (formerly pillars) in the city of Mina just east of Mecca. It is one of a series of ritual acts that must be performed in the Hajj.

Some notable incidents include:

July 2, 1990: A stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel (Al-Ma'aisim tunnel) leading out from Mecca towards Mina and the Plains of Arafat led to the deaths of 1,426 pilgrims, many of them of Malaysian, Indonesian and Pakistani origin.

May 23, 1994: A stampede killed at least 270 pilgrims at the stoning of the Devil ritual.

April 9, 1998: at least 118 pilgrims were trampled to death and 180 injured in an incident on Jamarat Bridge.

March 5, 2001: 35 pilgrims were trampled to death in a stampede during the stoning of the Devil ritual.

February 11, 2003: The stoning of the Devil ritual claimed 14 pilgrims' lives.

February 1, 2004: 251 pilgrims were killed and another 244 injured in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.

January 12, 2006: A stampede during the stoning of the Devil on the last day of the Hajj in Mina killed at least 346 pilgrims and injured at least 289 more. The incident occurred shortly after 13:00 local time, when a busload of travellers arrived together at the eastern access ramps to the Jamarat Bridge. This caused pilgrims to trip, rapidly resulting in a lethal stampede. An estimated two million people were performing the ritual at the time.

September 24, 2015: 719 pilgrims were killed and another 800 injured during a stampede in the 2015 Hajj.

Following the 2006 incident, the Jamaraat Bridge and the pillars representing Satan were demolished and reconstructed. A wider, multi-level bridge was built, and massive columns replaced the pillars themselves. Now, each level of the bridge allows easier and safer access to the columns representing Satan. The picture to the right shows a view of one level post-construction. It was taken the year after the 2006 incident. In addition, the stoning ceremony must be carried out according to pre-determined schedules to prevent over-crowding and the attendant risks. The Jamarat basin has been expanded from its current circular shape into an oval to allow better access to the pillars. The new arrangements provide for separate access and departure routes.

Fires

December 1975: An exploding gas cylinder caused a fire in a tent colony and resulted in the deaths of 200 pilgrims.

April 15, 1997: 343 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 injured in a tent fire (Main article: Mecca fire of 1997). The tents are now fireproof.

November 1, 2011: Two pilgrims, a wife and husband, died in a coach fire. There were two coaches in the convoy, and a person in the second coach noticed smoke billowing from the coach in front. He radioed the driver to stop. Everybody evacuated the coach, and as the last two were getting out, the coach suffered three explosions.

Protests and violence

July 31, 1987: A clash between Iranian demonstrators and Saudi security forces brought death to more than 400 pilgrims and injury to thousands more.

1987 Mecca incident

The 1987 Mecca incident was a clash between Shia pilgrim demonstrators and the Saudi Arabian security forces, during the Hajj pilgrimage; it occurred in Mecca on 31 July 1987 and led to the deaths of over 400 people. The event has been variously described as a "riot" or a "massacre." It arose from escalating tensions between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Since 1981, Iranian pilgrims had held an annual demonstration against Israel and the United States, but in 1987, a cordon of Saudi police and National Guards had sealed part of the planned demonstration route, leading to a confrontation between them and the pilgrims. This escalated into a violent clash, followed by a deadly stampede. There is a controversy regarding the details of the incident, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia laying much of the blame on the other side. Some sources claim the death toll from the incident was 402 people: 275 Iranian pilgrims, 85 Saudi police, and 42 pilgrims from other nationalities. Other sources claim that more than 400 pilgrims had died, and thousands more injured.

Background

There is a long history of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab had initiated the destruction of various religious burial sites in Hejaz, and King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud continued with this initiative, destroying parts of the Shiite-revered burial site of Al-Baqi' in 1925. This caused outrage in Iran, with the Iranian government calling for the ousting of ibn Saud, and banning Iranians from performing the pilgrimage in 1927. In 1943, an Iranian pilgrim was beheaded based on Saudi charges that he brought excrement inside the Great Mosque on his garment. Iran lodged a formal protest, and suspended pilgrimage until 1948.

For years, Iranian pilgrims had tried to stage demonstrations called "Distancing Ourselves from Mushrikīn" in the Muslim holy city of Mecca during the hajj. These demonstrations had their origins in 1971, when Ayatollah Khomeini instructed his Shiite followers to distribute political messages when performing their pilgrimage. Even though a few Iranians were arrested for this act, the Saudi officials were generally apathetic, as they did not view these political messages to be a threat to the Saudi royalty. The practice of distributing political messages, which were mainly criticism of the United States and Israel, as well as pro-Western governments, continued up until the year 1981.

In 1981, this was escalated into openly chanting political slogans in the Masjid al-Haram and the Prophet's Mosque, two of the holiest sites in Islam, resulting in violent clashes with Saudi security and one death. In the same year, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia wrote a letter to Saddam Hussein saying "crush these stupid Iranians" as Saddam pushed on with the invasion of Iranian territory.

In the following years, both sides tried to calm the situation: Ayatollah Khomeini urged his followers to maintain peace and order, not to distribute printed political material, and not to criticize Muslim governments. In return, Saudi officials reversed their earlier position and allowed two separate demonstrations to take place: One in Mecca, and the other in Medina.

By 1986, the situation was calm enough for Saudi officials to re-open the sealed al-Baqi' cemetery for Shiite pilgrims, and in response, Ayatollah Khomeini’s representative formally thanked the Saudi King for the gesture. Further adding to the tensions were the demands made by Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha in 1987 to allow the Iranian pilgrims to hold their demonstrations within the Great Mosque itself, and without the presence of security guards. Khoeiniha had been earlier appointed as the supervisor and personal representative of Ayatollah Khomeini for Hajj affairs, but had been expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1982. Even though Mehdi Karrubi, who was Ayatollah Khomeini’s official pilgrimage representative that year, tried to assure Saudi officials that the demonstrations would take place in the usual manner and in the agreed routes, it did little to quell the Saudi fears. Before the demonstrations started, Ayatollah Khomeini instructed the Iranian pilgrims to maintain peace and remain civil during the pilgrimage.

Demonstrations

On Friday 31 July 1987, the demonstration by Iranian pilgrims against the "enemies of Iran" (including the U.S. and Israel) started amid heightened security. The march was uneventful until towards the end of the planned route, where the demonstrators found their way blocked by Saudi riot police and National Guardsmen. At this point, some of the Iranians began to call for the demonstrations to press ahead and continue to the Great Mosque. While this was happening, unidentified persons began harassing the Iranian pilgrims by throwing bricks and other objects at them from a nearby location. These factors exacerbated the situation, escalating it into a violent clash between the Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security, with the Saudis reportedly using truncheons and electric prods and the Iranians using knives and clubs.

Saudi security personnel reportedly opened fire on the demonstrators, a charge which Saudi officials deny. The rioting, and the resulting stampede caused a reported 402 dead (275 Iranians, 85 Saudis including policemen, and 42 pilgrims from other countries) and 649 wounded (303 Iranians, 145 Saudis and 201 other nationals).

The details are controversial. Iranian officials maintain that the Saudis had fired on the protesters without provocation, and that the demonstrations had been peaceful. Saudi officials insist that no shots were fired, and that all deaths were caused by the melee and stampede.

Aftermath

Memorial and Tombs of Victims in Iran

On 1 August 1987, a spontaneous demonstration by enraged Iranians ended with attacks on the Kuwaiti and Saudi embassies in Tehran. On the same day, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called on Saudis to overthrow the House of Saud to avenge the pilgrims' deaths. In a Washington news conference, the Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan claimed that "not one bullet was fired," blaming the violence on the Iranian pilgrims who he accused of "brandishing knives, clubs and broken glass drawn from beneath their cloaks." According to Dr. Robert O. Freedman, Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University: "Later on, however, Iranian officials displayed the bullet wounds in the victims' bodies, which proved that the Saudis had indeed used firearms." Robin Wright also reports that "Many of the Iranian bodies, shown to American and European reporters immediately upon their return to Tehran, had bullet punctures.

Both sides took additional measures to bolster their view on the issue. Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran and reduced the number of permitted Iranian pilgrims to 45,000, down from 150,000 in earlier years. Iran boycotted the Hajj for three years, from 1988 to 1990.

In 1991, Iran and Saudi Arabia renewed diplomatic relations after coming to an agreement to allow Iranian pilgrims to perform the Hajj once more. The total number of pilgrims was set at 115,000, and the demonstrations were allowed to be held, but only in one specific location granted by the Saudis. Under this agreement, Iranian pilgrims continued their annual demonstration in the 1990s and 2000s with few or no incidents. They limited their rally to within the confines of their compound in Mecca.

- July 9, 1989: Two bombs exploded, killing one pilgrim and wounding another 16. Saudi authorities executed 16 Kuwaiti Shia Muslims for the bombings after originally suspecting Iranian agents.

Airplane crashes

January 22, 1973: A Royal Jordanian Boeing 707 crashed at Kano, Nigeria, killing 176 Hajj pilgrims returning from Mecca.

December 4, 1974: Martinair Flight 138 crashed near Colombo, Sri Lanka, killing all 191 people aboard – 182 Indonesian hajj pilgrims bound for Mecca, and 9 crew members.

November 15, 1978: Icelandic Airlines Loftleiðir HF Flight LL 001 crashed at Colombo, Sri Lanka, killing 170 (mostly Indonesian) Muslim pilgrims returning from the Hajj.

November 26, 1979: Pakistan International Airlines Flight 740 crashed after takeoff from the old Jeddah International Airport on 26 November 1979 killing all 156 on board.

August 19, 1980: Saudia Flight 163 had a cargo compartment fire shortly after take-off from Riyadh airport. All 287 passengers and 14 crew on board the Lockheed L-1011-200 TriStar, registration HZ-AHK, died after the aircraft made an emergency landing.

July 11, 1991: Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 (operated by Nationair) was a chartered passenger flight from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Sokoto, Nigeria which crashed shortly after takeoff from King Abdulaziz International Airport, killing all 247 Hajj pilgrims and 14 crew members on board.

Disease

Mingling of visitors from many countries, some of which have poor health care systems still plagued by preventable infectious diseases, can lead to the spread of epidemics. If an outbreak were to occur on the road to Mecca, pilgrims could exacerbate the problem when they returned home and passed their infection on to others. This was more of a problem in the past. One such disease, which has prompted response from the Saudi government, is meningitis as it became a primary concern after an international outbreak following the Hajj in 1987. Due to post-Hajj outbreaks globally of certain types of meningitis in previous years, it is now a visa requirement to be immunised with the ACW135Y vaccine before arrival. Every year, the Saudi government publishes a list of required vaccines for pilgrims, which for 2010 also included yellow fever, polio, and influenza.

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus

As of 9 September 2013, the Saudi government asked "elderly and chronically ill Muslims to avoid the hajj this year" and restricted the numbers of people allowed into the country due to Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). On 1 November 2013, a woman who had recently performed the hajj contracted the disease and is in Spain.[15] Although MERS-CoV was not detected among pilgrims, this does not rule out risk of the disease at hajj.

Historical outbreaks

In 1905 the El Tor strain of cholera was discovered in six pilgrims returning from hajj at the El-Tor quarantine camp in Egypt.

Construction failures

2006 Al Ghaza hotel collapse

A concrete multi-story building located in Mecca close to the Grand Mosque collapsed on January 5, 2006. The building, the Al-Ghaza Hotel, is said to have housed a restaurant, a convenience store, and a hotel. The hotel was reported to have been housing pilgrims to the 2006 Hajj. It is not clear how many pilgrims were in the hotel at the time of the collapse. As of the latest reports, the death toll was 76 and the number of injured was 64.

2015 crane collapse

On 11 September 2015, a crawler crane toppled over onto the Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. 111 people were killed and 394 injured. The city was preparing for the Hajj pilgrimage.

The victims were of twelve different nationalities, with the greatest contingents of fatalities being twenty-five Bangladeshis and twenty-three Egyptians. Of the injured, the most represented nationalities were 51 Pakistanis and 42 Indonesians. The accident has been cited as the deadliest crane collapse in modern history, with the previous most deadly incident being the collapse of a construction crane in New York City in 2008, killing seven people

Background

The Masjid al-Haram is the largest mosque in the world and surrounds Islam's holiest place, the Kaaba, in the city of Mecca. Muslims face in the direction of the Kaaba while performing obligatory daily prayers. One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to perform the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime if able to do so, including circumambulation of the Kaaba.

There have been many major incidents during the Hajj over the years, causing the loss of thousands of lives. To prevent stampedes and accommodate more pilgrims each year during the Hajj season, Saudi authorities undertook a major construction project to expand the mosque compound in recent years. At the time of the incident the Saudi authorities were preparing for the hundreds of thousands of people expected to arrive in the city for the Hajj due to begin on 22 September 2015. A Saudi official stated that Hajj would continue despite the collapse.

Accident

The Saudi Civil Defence authority confirmed that a crane collapsed through the ceiling of the mosque during strong winds created by a powerful storm. The collapse killed at least 111 people, injured 394 and trapped many pilgrims under the debris.

The incident reportedly occurred shortly before 5:20 p.m. on Friday, one of the busiest times of the week. The crane fell into the east side of the mosque, with its boom crashing through the roof.[5] One witness reported that the crane fell on the third floor above Al-Safa and Al-Marwah at 5:45 p.m. local time.

There were strong sand storms in the region over the preceding week. The authority said an hour before the disaster that Mecca was experiencing medium to heavy rains. There were also reports of winds of more than 40 kilometres per hour (25 mph). However, the exact cause of the crane collapse was not confirmed.

Following the accident the governor of Mecca, Prince Khaled Al Faisal, ordered an investigation into the incident. Search and rescue teams and medical workers from the Saudi Red Crescent were sent to the site. After visiting the site on 13 September 2015, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud vowed that the accident will be investigated and the results will be made public. Pictures and video circulating on social media showed many dead and wounded amidst severe damage to the building.

After receiving the report on the investigation into the incident, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman ordered on September 15, only four days after the incident, that top officials of the Saudi Binladin Group be banned from traveling outside the kingdom and the group is also suspended from taking new projects. The report pinned the blame for the accident partially on the construction company. A royal court announcement carried by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the king was reviewing the report of the Accident Investigation Committee, which suggested negligence on the part of the Saudi Binladin Group, but concluded that it found an "absence of criminal suspicion". The report said "the main reason for the accident is the strong winds while the crane was in a wrong position".

Crane

The German-made Liebherr Group crawler crane LR 11350 involved in the incident is operated by the Saudi Binladin Group, who are heading the expansion of the Grand Mosque and also responsible for a large amount of major building contracts in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Binladen Group is the second largest construction company in the world and was founded by billionaire Mohammed Bin Laden. An engineer for the group said that the crane was erected in "an extremely professional way", and the accident was an "act of God". The Liebherr Group responded to the accident by sending local engineers and engineers from their crane manufacturing plant in Ehingen, Germany to help in the investigation of the accident and to assist on site. Liebherr Group experts who participated in the investigation of the collapse found no structural flaws in the crane. Their report stated that the crane's 190 meter long boom was not sufficiently secured by its operators so as to withstand the high winds present on the day of the collapse, and that use of that crane in those 80–105 kph winds was well outside the manufacturer's recommended operating parameters. The Saudi Gazette reported that Khaled Al-Faisal, the Emir (Governor) of Mecca, had ordered the Binladin Group to relocate the crane from pedestrian areas and to deploy safeguards to prevent pilgrims entering the construction zone, eleven days before the accident.

A source within the Mosque's engineering department stated that the crane was removed from the mosque and will not be reconstructed. The source said that, in coordination with the Civil Defense, all of the 100 cranes still present near the Haram were inspected and found to be safe.

Reaction

Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, criticised the Saudi authorities, believing that their redevelopment of holy sites was not only damaging history, but putting pilgrims' lives at risk.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called for immediate aid for Malaysian pilgrims who were injured in the incident. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani offered medical staff to assist with casualties. Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman said that a Pakistani medical team is engaged in providing medical treatment to the injured.

Other leaders around the world offered condolences. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi prayed that "Allah Almighty to grant the souls of the deceased rest in peace and forgiveness and to grant the injured a speedy recovery." Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson stated that he was "deeply saddened" and offered "condolences to the families and friends of the victims".

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that his "thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost their lives in the crane crash in Mecca" and wished a "quick recovery" for the injured. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari urged "all Nigerians to pray for the continued safety of their compatriots who are currently in Saudi Arabia for this year's Hajj". Singapore's President Tony Tan extended his "deepest and heartfelt condolences" to the King and people of Saudi Arabia, and stated that "our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families during this difficult time".

South African President Jacob Zuma and Russian President Vladimir Putin both offered their condolences. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow wrote that "it was with heartache that I heard the news that hundreds of people who were on a pilgrimage to Mecca were killed and injured". United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron wrote on Twitter that his "thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones at Mecca today". United States Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement that the United States stood with Saudi Arabia and "all Muslims around the world in the aftermath of this dreadful incident at one of Islam's holiest sites".

Compensation for victims

King Salman of Saudi Arabia ordered that a million Saudi riyal (US$266,000) be paid as compensation to the families of those who died in the crane collapse, and that two relatives of each of the deceased are to be the King's guests for Hajj in 2016. The Saudi King has further ordered a million Riyals to be paid to each victim of the collapse with a permanent disability, and half a million riyal (US$133,000) to be paid to as compensation to collapse victims without lasting injuries. King Salman also decreed that these compensation payments will not prevent private legal claims by the injured and families of the deceased.

2015 Hajj stampede

On 24 September 2015, a stampede resulted in the deaths of at least 717 people and injuries to 863 others during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. It is the deadliest accident to occur in the Hajj since the 1990 stampede that killed 1,426 people. Iranian state-owned Press TV reported that according to Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization more than 1,300 people were killed in the stampede,[4] adding that the overall death toll is expected to exceed 1,500. Lebanon-based Ad-Diyar reported that the convoy of Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who was attending Hajj, played a central role in the stampede. The report was denied by the Saudi officials. The incident was the second tragedy at Mecca in less than 2 weeks; earlier, on September 11 a crane collapsed, killing 111 people and injuring hundreds more.

The Hajj is an annual pilgrimage in Mecca prescribed as a duty for Muslims to undertake at least once in their lifetime. As traditionally performed, it consists of a series of rites including the Stoning of the Devil (Arabic: ramī aj-jamarāt) which takes place at the Jamaraat Bridge in Mina, a district a few miles east of Mecca. The Jamaraat Bridge is a pedestrian bridge from which pilgrims can throw pebbles at the three jamrah pillars. The stoning ritual is the last major ritual and is often regarded as the most dangerous part of the Hajj, with its large crowds, confined spaces, and tight scheduling. A number of stampedes have occurred in the past.

346 people were killed in a similar incident in 2006, which prompted the Saudi government to improve the infrastructure of the city. The Saudi Arabian government has been spending $60 billion to expand the Grand Mosque which houses the Kaaba, and has deployed 100,000 security forces and 5,000 CCTV cameras to monitor the crowds.

The disaster

According to a statement by the Saudi civil defence directorate, the stampede occurred at 09:00 Mecca time (06:00 UTC) at the junction between street 204 and 223 as pilgrims were en route to the Jamaraat Bridge. The Saudi Interior Ministry stated that the stampede was triggered when two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street. The junction lay between two pilgrim camp sites.

Lebanon-based Arabic-language daily Ad-Diyar said in a report that the convoy escorting Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, which consisted of 200 army forces and 150 police officers, played a central role in the stampede. The report said the presence of the prince in the middle of the population prompted a change in the direction of the movement of the pilgrims and a stampede. The report further said that Mohammad and his huge entourage swiftly abandoned the scene, adding that the Saudi authorities seek to hush up the entire story and impose a media blackout on Mohammad’s presence in the area.

Mohammed Jafari, an advisor to the Hajj and Umrah Travel tour operator in the UK, said:

The main reason for this accident was that the King and his palace was receiving dignitaries including the minister of defence and members of the Gulf Co-operation Council. For this reason, they closed two of the entrances to where the ('stoning of the devil' ritual) happens and they closed two roads where people were not able to proceed which created two bottlenecks. It is the fault of the Saudi government because any time a prince comes along, they close the roads and don't think about the disaster waiting to happen. Khalid A. Al-Falih blames God. In every disaster, the Saudis say it is God's will. It is not God's will – it is man's incompetence. You have a stream of people going in and if you stop that stream, and the population builds up, eventually there is going to be an accident.

Jafari also accused the Saudi government of making racist statements by suggesting that the stampede was caused by African pilgrims.

In a press conference held the day of the incident, spokesman of the Ministry of Interior Mansour Al-Turki attempted to address most issues regarding the incident. He said that an investigation was ongoing, that the exact causes for crowding that led to the deadly stampede on Mina Street 204 are yet to be ascertained. He explained that "Street number 204 is a road leading from the camps to the Jamarat Bridge. What happened was that a group of pilgrims on busses were allowed to descend onto the pathways that lead to the Jamarat Bridge at a time that wasn’t allocated to them,” Al Arabiya News Channel’s correspondent in Mina, Saad Al-Matrafi said. "As they neared the area, they converged with an existing group of people who were already in the area, which pushed the area to over capacity." The spokesman also mentioned that most diplomatic convoys take place in the south of Mina and in underground tunnels, while the incident took place in the north. He added that news regarding the incident should be sought from official sources, pointing out that most controversial news regarding the unfortunate incident are coming from sources at conflict with the Saudi Government.

Casualties

The Saudi Civil Defence directorate stated that casualties were of multiple nationalities. Iran's state news agency IRNA announced the deaths of 131 Iranian pilgrims in the stampede. It is also believed that a large number of Nigerian, Nigerien, Chadian and Senegalese pilgrims are among the dead.

The Saudi Civil Defence directorate announced the deployment of 4,000 personnel to the stampede site alongside 220 emergency response units. Pilgrims were redirected away from the stampede site. The Saudi Red Crescent was also mobilised and the injured are being treated at four hospitals.

Read More: Sources: Toll from Hajj stampede outside Mecca reaches 2,000

Reactions

Governments

Saudi Arabia: The governor of the Makkah Region and head of the Central Hajj Committee Canaanite Prince Khaled al-Faisal blamed the stampede on "some pilgrims from African nationalities". The Saudi health minister Khalid A. Al-Falih stated that the stampede occurred due to pilgrims failing to follow official directions, adding that timetables established by authorities were ignored. However, witnesses dispute this, according to the Guardian.

Iran: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme leader of Iran, declared three days of national mourning in Iran. "The Saudi government is obligated to shoulder its heavy responsibility in this bitter incident and meet its obligations in compliance with the rule of righteousness and fairness. Mismanagement and improper measures that were behind this tragedy should not be overlooked,” Khamenei said. He further said "Saudi Arabia is incapable of organising the pilgrimage. The running of the Hajj must be handed over to Islamic states."

Read More: Iran declares 3-day national mourning

Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned Saudi Arabia’s chargé d'affaires, and dispatched a high-ranking delegation from the Foreign Ministry and the Iranian Red Crescent, headed by Hassan Qashqavi, to investigate the situation. Amir Abdollahian, Deputy of Foreign Affairs Minister, accused Saudi officials of tactlessness over the lack of safety measures at the Hajj and said "We can in no way be indifferent to this irresponsible behaviour of Saudi Arabia. This will be dealt with through diplomatic channels.”

The head of Iran’s Hajj organization, Said Ohadi, accused Saudi Arabia of safety errors that caused the accident saying that "Today’s incident shows mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims. There is no other explanation. The Saudi officials should be held accountable.”

Khamenei’s representative on Hajj affairs, Seyed Ali Ghaziaskar, said: "Saudi officials do not let our medical team and doctors to reach the affected areas and hospitals to help.”

Thousands of people marched in Tehran to protest at Saudi Arabia’s handling of the hajj pilgrimage. The Iranian demonstrators carried black banners and chanted "death to Al Saud [family]”, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia.

Turkey – Mehmet Gormez, the head of Presidency of Religious Affairs blamed serious management issues at Mecca, saying "There was serious negligence by authorities in directing the crowd."

Nigeria - Nigerian government has dismissed remarks by the Saudi health minister blaming pilgrims for "not following instructions". Abdullahi Mukhtar, the Chairman of National Hajj Commission of Nigeria said "it was not fair for anyone to blame Africans participating at the pilgrimage for the fatal incident" and called on the Saudi authority to include Nigeria in a government investigation into the incident.

Syria - State-controlled news agency Syrian Arab News Agency said "the stampede raised questions about the Saudi government’s attention to pilgrims’ safety despite billions of dollars that Saudi authorities claim to spend to improve Hajj.”

Analysts

Irfan al-Alawi, the executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, said that "the disaster was a result of poor management by the government, given the number of past disasters."

Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi-Arabian anthropologist and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, said: "There is no accountability. It’s shocking that almost every year there is some kind of death toll. The renovation and expansion are done under the pretext of creating more space for Muslim pilgrims, but it masks land grabs and vast amounts of money being made by the princes and by other Saudis. Officials in the kingdom had avoided responsibility in part by citing the Islamic doctrine that anyone who dies during the pilgrimage goes to heaven."

Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi analyst and current director of the Washington D.C. based Institute for Gulf Affairs think tank blamed the Saudi government's "mismanagement” of the Hajj, saying that "the Ministry of Interior's use of soldiers who have no clue or expertise in managing crowds was the real cause of stampedes. This really has to do with the failure of the Saudi government in organizing this Hajj, and they need to get help from around the world."

Saeed al-Shehabi, a London-based Bahraini political activist in an interview with Press TV said that "In Saudi Arabia; it is good the Saudis are good at war, are good at financing terrorism and extremism, they are bombing Yemen days and nights, yet they cannot manage this annual festival where Muslims are expected to exercise their worship in peace and in harmony and also to discuss their own lively matters that concern Muslims."

Other fatal events

Of the millions of pilgrims each year, many are elderly, and some die of their illnesses, exacerbated in some cases by the heat and exertion.

Before the beginning of the first day of the December 2006 Hajj, 243 pilgrims had died, according to a statement by the Saudi government. The majority of deaths were reportedly related to heart problems, exhaustion in the elderly and people with weak health, caused by the heat and tiring physical work involved in the pilgrimage. After the conclusion of the Hajj, the Nigerian government reported that 33 nationals had died mostly "as a result of hypertension, diabetes and heart attack", not because of any epidemic illnesses. They deny accusations made that some Nigerian pilgrims died in an accident on a road to Mina. Egypt's official news agency has reported that by December 30 (10 Dhu al-Hijjah), 22 Egyptian pilgrims had died.[20] Four elderly Filipino pilgrims in their 50s died during the pilgrimage of illnesses or other 'natural causes', and were buried in Mecca. The Pakistani Hajj Medical Commission has announced that approximately 130 Pakistani pilgrims died during the Hajj season in Saudi Arabia, "mostly aged and victims of pneumonia and heart patients", and that 66 pilgrims were admitted to Saudi hospitals for similar ailments.

In early December 2006, a coach carrying pilgrims from holy sites in Medina to Mecca crashed 55 miles north of the port of Rabegh near Jeddah, killing 3 Britons and injuring 34 others, including two children.

In November 2011, thirteen Afghans died and a dozen others were wounded as a result of illness and traffic accidents.

Pickpocketing

Of late, pickpocketing has created numerous problems for Hajj pilgrims. According to the Save Madina Foundation, 321 were victims of pickpocketing during Hajj in 2010.

Official responses

The Saudi government has created a CCTV network to oversee security during the event.

Critics say that the Saudi government should have done more to prevent such tragedies. The Saudi government insists that any such mass gatherings are inherently dangerous and difficult to handle, and that they have taken a number of steps to prevent the problems.

One of the biggest steps, which is also controversial, is a new system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while restricting repeat visits. Pilgrims who have the means and desire to perform the Hajj several times have protested what they see as discrimination, but the Hajj Commission has stated that they see no alternative if further tragedies are to be prevented.

Following the 2004 stampede, Saudi authorities embarked on major construction work in and around the Jamarat Bridge area. Additional accessways, footbridges, and emergency exits were built, and the three cylindrical pillars were replaced with concrete walls to enable more pilgrims simultaneous access to them without the jostling and fighting for position of recent years. The government has also announced a multi-million-dollar project to expand the bridge to five levels; the project is planned for completion in time for the 1427 AH (Dec. 2006 – Jan. 2007) Hajj.

By: H. S Yeganeh

 


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